I’ve now watched most of the movies from the Warner Brothers Gangster Collection Volume 3 box set – which is rather misnamed since none of the movies really seem to be true gangster films. Anyway, this early Humphrey Bogart offering is my favourite of those I’ve seen so far, along with The Mayor of Hell – which was also made by the same director, Archie Mayo. Judging from the films of his I’ve seen to date, it seems as if he was great at getting that Warner grittiness and working-class atmosphere, and, even when hamstrung by the Hays Code, he still pushed the boundaries as far as he could.
In this exposé of 1930s fascist organisations, Mayo was forced by the Hays office to remove some vital elements, such as explicit references to the ethnicity of the victims targeted by the Legion, a shadowy Ku Klux Klan-like organisation operating in some states of the US at the time. There are no African-Americans in the movie at all, and it’s only hinted that one of the victims might be Polish-Jewish, another Irish Catholic. Mayo even had to include a disclaimer at the start suggesting that the Black Legion was a fictional organisation – although I’m not sure if this was dictated by Hays or an attempt to avoid reprisals by the real terror organisations. In any case, this would have fooled nobody. The real Black Legion had recently been in the headlines over a murder case which provided much of the inspiration for the plot.
Despite all this watering-down, I’d say the film is still disturbing and hard-hitting – with subject matter which is still topical today. Its message about the persecution of minorities is unmistakeable, whatever Hays did to try to hide it. And it contains a powerful performance by Bogart, looking much younger than his real age of 36, in his first starring role. Bogart didn’t have his name above the title, and, according to the commentary on the DVD, Warner was actually criticised at the time for not casting any big-name actors. However, he is riveting to watch, and it is easy to see that he was on the road to stardom by this time.
Bogart is cast as Frank Taylor, a worker in a machine shop, who is a nice guy, kind, hard-working and devoted to his wife Ruth (Erin O’Brien-Moore) and kid, Buddy (Dickie Jones). He’s more responsible than his friend, Ed Jackson (Dick Foran), seen staggering through the opening scenes with a hangover after a night of heavy drinking. When the job of foreman falls vacant, Frank is the obvious choice for the job – and immediately starts planning how he will spend his extra earnings, on a new car and a vacuum cleaner (clearly the latest must-have gadget at the time).
However, Frank is passed over in favour of workmate Joe Dombrowski (Henry Brandon). Burning over with resentment, Frank is approached by another worker in the factory, Cliff Summers (Joe Sawyer), who whips up his anger against “foreigners” and invites him to a secret meeting. He goes along, to see a crowd being whipped up by a demagogue speaking in something of a Hitler-style in a meeting room behind the local chemist’s shop – and agrees to join the group.
Soon, Frank is wearing Klan-style robes, vowing obedience on pain of eternal damnation, and speeding through the streets at night to take part in lynchings and violent attacks.
Although the attacks are clearly racist, the victims are often also chosen for personal and opportunistic reasons – for instance, Joe and his father are driven out of town so that Frank can step into Joe’s job. There is even a brief scene showing businessmen in suits discussing the Legion and how they are funding its activities as an investment. Again according to the commentary, this is one of a couple of scenes added in by Michael Curtiz after Mayo had completed the main film.
All this happens rather too quickly, as so much has to be packed into the film’s short running time of just 83 minutes. It is hard to believe that the Frank we saw at the start of the film could turn into a hardened thug quite so fast. However, there are a couple of brilliant scenes as the transformation is carried out.
I think possibly the most powerful sequence in the whole film is the scene where Frank joins the Legion, and has to recite an incredibly long and bloodthirsty oath, asking God and the devil to destroy him and let him burn in hell forever more if he ever betrays his comrades. (According to one site I looked at, this is said to be the real wording of the Ku Klux Klan membership oath). Bogart reads it out slowly and expressionlessly, stumbling over the words in increasing bewilderment. The contrast between his deadpan reading style and the lurid content of what he is saying somehow adds to the impact. This scene was actually banned in the UK because our censors over here objected to mention of God.
The whole contrast between the cosy domestic scenes in the daytime and the violence at night is also well done, and adds to the horror of what is unfolding. Frank affectionately tells Ruth not to wait up for him, then speeds off to injure and bully anyone who gets in his way. Although I said this isn’t really a gangster film, maybe it is after all, since this is very much the stuff of many more modern gangster movies and series like The Sopranos. There’s even a scene where Ruth, poignantly played by O’Brien-Moore in a nicely understated performance, is busy offering soup and sympathy to the family of someone her husband just helped to beat to a pulp.
Another powerful scene comes when Frank takes home the gun he has been forced to buy from the Legion, and struts around in front of the mirror working out how best to carry it – first nervously, but then with increasing delight at the figure he is cutting. I’ve seen one or two gangster movies where the new gangster is delighted to see himself in his sharp clothes, and this scene takes that idea further.
However, although Frank might be feeling pleased with himself for a few short scenes, his world is soon falling apart. He loses his promotion to foreman when he neglects his work to try to recruit a new member for the Legion, and Ruth walks out on him when he slaps her face after she and Ed both start to suspect him of involvement in the lynchings.
He then hits the bottle (a great drunken scene by Bogart) and stupidly lets the truth slip out to Ed about the Legion. That then means Ed must be abducted and killed. Another great scene comes when Bogart shoots his friend, then stands there in horror staring at him – Bogart is covered by a Legion robe, but his figure is unmistakeable, and his eyes, the only part of his face which can be seen, are full of darkness.
After hiding among the trees of the wood where the murder took place, he creeps into a local pub, dirty and dishevelled, and humbly asks for a glass of water. He drinks it down in a gulp and says: “Please can I have some more?” He is still sitting there drinking water, his hands trembling around the glass, when police arrive and arrest him. This is yet another of the scenes which for me has a great impact, though I’m not sure why – perhaps because it is such an everyday scene, perhaps because it makes the killer seem so vulnerable and almost childlike. There is a scene a little bit later where Frank’s wife visits him in prison and he he kneels down and sobs with his face hidden against her dress, something of a set-piece for 1930s films – but for me the glass of water scene somehow carries an even greater emotional punch.
It’s impossible to sympathise much with Frank given the things he has done, but it’s also difficult to watch a star like Bogart playing someone in such turmoil without feeling at least some sympathy – and, watching it with the knowledge of his later heroic roles in my mind, it’s hard to put all that out of my mind and see him as just the character he is playing here. In any case, Erin O’Brien-Moore is also riveting in these final scenes – the commentary points out that a lot of this is silent acting, as she and Bogart watch each other while he is in the dock, and have to say everything with their eyes.
Unfortunately, the ending of the film is damaged by a very long and preachy speech by the judge, which was apparently praised at the time when the film was released and even won some award for best movie speech! I could well do without these five minutes or however long it takes – the film has already said everything the judge says, and done it much better.